"My whole belief of taking the streets comes from my military training," he says. "Whenever we would do field operations, it was all about having soldiers with boots on the ground. That was a common phrase: 'We gotta have boots on the ground.'"

When Clark returned to St. Louis at 21, he had no idea what he wanted to do with his life. He spent his days delivering furniture for a rental company and his nights partying with friends. During one night of partying, a friend asked him if he had ever read The Autobiography of Malcolm X. He said that he hadn't and went on partying. A week later, he spotted the book on his mother's bookshelf. Bored and curious, he started reading.

"That book transformed my entire life," he says. "I was drinking 40s and smoking weed when I started reading the book, and by the time I got done reading the book, oh, I was on fire for the community. I was ablaze."

"We have got to fight for peace in our neighborhoods. This time we've got to get our civil rights from each other. And when we do that, it's gon' change America. It's gon' change the world," says James Clark.
Jennifer Silverberg
"We have got to fight for peace in our neighborhoods. This time we've got to get our civil rights from each other. And when we do that, it's gon' change America. It's gon' change the world," says James Clark.
Unlike many other academics, Norm White immerses himself in the neighborhoods. He spends his free time cruising north city and county, stopping to talk to residents sitting on porches or walking down the street.
Jennifer Silverberg
Unlike many other academics, Norm White immerses himself in the neighborhoods. He spends his free time cruising north city and county, stopping to talk to residents sitting on porches or walking down the street.

He started volunteering for Better Family Life and grew close with its founder, Malik Ahmed. He stopped delivering furniture and took a position with the St. Louis Public Schools' Role Model program. His job was to find gainfully employed African Americans — lawyers, plumbers, Rams players — to speak at the 68 schools he oversaw.

"I really saw how one conversation, how one interaction, could have a profound effect on a young person," he says.

One of his most frequent speakers was a young St. Louis circuit clerk named Freeman Bosley Jr. Bosley took an interest in Clark and offered him a job as an associate circuit clerk, which he eventually accepted. A year later Bosley ran for mayor, and Clark, charismatic and relentless, handled the campaign's field operations.

Bosley won, becoming the city's first African American mayor, and brought the 25-year-old Clark with him to city hall as an administrative assistant. From that position, Clark worked on Bosley's community-outreach effort— expanding neighborhood and recreational programs and scheduling town-hall meetings. He canvassed north St. Louis and recruited residents into job-training programs. "Basically the same stuff I'm doing now," he says.

It was at city hall that Clark first cultivated his network of soldiers. For instance, he found Willingham, then a high-level drug dealer, playing craps in the projects and hooked him up with a construction gig, his first legitimate job.

After Bosley lost reelection in 1997, Ahmed scooped up Clark for Better Family Life's community-outreach division. One of Clark's first assignments was to bring in people to the organization's job-training program at the newly built MET Center. So Clark — what else? — hit the streets, passing out fliers at every barbershop and nail salon and housing project he could find.

Every enrollment cycle filled.


There is little to no evidence showing that community-mobilization strategies reduce crime. In 1997, criminologist Lawrence Sherman headed a team of researchers at the National Institute of Justice who wrote up a 300-plus-page report for Congress called "Preventing Crime: What Works, What Doesn't, What's Promising."

On the topic of community mobilization, Sherman wrote: "The scientific evidence that communities matter is strong. The evidence that serious crime is concentrated in a very small number of communities is even stronger. But the link between those facts and the design between prevention programs is very thin indeed."

A big reason for this, according to Robert Bursik, a criminologist at the University of Missouri-St. Louis and a friend of White, is that residents of impoverished communities are often disillusioned by all the programs that have come in, promising to improve their neighborhoods, and failed.

"There's a sense of abandonment," he says. "If you've got this sense of abandonment, why the hell would you try to change it, because it's not gonna change. Your mom will tell you, 'It's the way it's always been here.' Your grandma will tell you, 'It's the way it's always been here.' So Norm's gonna have to come in and convince these folks that this is the real deal. Now, Norm's got some advantages. He's a project boy from the Bronx. That's a whole lot different than if some white guy, white college professor that had grown up in Town & Country is gonna say, 'I feel your pain, and I know how we can fix it.' Well, everybody can see through that bullshit."

White's background is unusual for an academic. He grew up in the Dyckman Houses on 204th Street, just across the Harlem River from the Bronx. After graduating with a degree in history from Marist College, he spent fifteen years counseling juvenile delinquents before going back to school and getting his doctorate in criminology at the University at Albany-SUNY in 1993.

His approach to research is unorthodox. Academics who study inner-city crime, he noticed, often don't understand the nuances of impoverished communities. Because of the pressure to publish, they tend to drop in, conduct their research and then leave. White, in contrast, immerses himself in the neighborhoods. He spends his free time cruising north city and county, stopping to talk to residents sitting on porches or walking down the street.

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38 comments
Alex3redromero
Alex3redromero

oh yeah! River Front Times, should have more articles like this every monthly issue and special reports..keep up the good work RFT

Alex Romero
Alex Romero

yeah I was told by a friend to read this compelling story of change in the st.louis area and community..it was worth my time thanks...keep up the good work of community outreach..hopefully this will and should catch on like wild fire

Martha
Martha

I am a student that transfered from L.A. valley community college to Saint louis University, i know that Los angeles has its problem with crime and poverty..but i believe like Dr. Norm White that our inner city neighborhoods need resources and more job readiness initiatives for the urban enviroment and people that see no hope...keep up the good work Dr. White and Clark...P.S. I pray that this project works and grow to every city west of the Arch until it reaches the gang capitol of the world Los Angeles and then the rest of America..

Margo Elrolas
Margo Elrolas

I really thought that this was a story that is very awsome because every inner city from new york to my home town of los angeles need a neighborhood alliance built from the gound up and not the top down to rebuild the united states inner city...good job mr,clark and better family life

Donte
Donte

Good Article...Like 2Pac said "they will see me in Hell before they see in Jail..peace in the streets

Luvator
Luvator

I really love how Mr. Clark and Mr. Bush always educate and inform young men every Saturday @ the BFL "put down the pistol" meetings..towards young black men Respecting women, even if they do not respect themselves.I heard them both say "a man is never violent or aggressive with women, a man is a father to his children, a man is a role model for all children. Also a good man respects the law, and knows this does not make him weak..I really agree that with a relationship with God a man is active in the building of his block and neighborhood. He sets an example, that others follow..We must teach this everyday to our boys and girls , to help them grow to become productive men and women in our community and families.we need basic morals and good personal ethicsand not AT RISK lil kids having lil kids,,babys raising babies...Keep up the Good Work BFL Outreach...Mr Bush and Mr clark

Luvatormarys
Luvatormarys

I really love how Mr. Clark and Mr. Bush always educate and inform young men every Saturday @ the BFL "put down the pistol" meetings..towards young black men Respecting women, even if they do not respect themselves.I heard them both say "a man is never violent or aggressive with women, a man is a father to his children, a man is a role model for all children. Also a good man respects the law, and knows this does not make him weak..I really agree that with a relationship with God a man is active in the building of his block and neighborhood. He sets an example, that others follow..We must teach this everyday to our boys and girls , to help them grow to become productive men and women in our community and families.we need basic morals and good personal ethicsand not AT RISK lil kids having lil kids,,babys raising babies...Keep up the Good Work BFL Outreach...Mr Bush and Mr clark

susieque2
susieque2

Talk to your kids like this when they're young: "One of the things you own from being born in the United States is a free education. You own it, it's yours.''Now if someone stole your lunch, your books, your Ipod, you'd be pssd. You'd be mad. You'd try to get even. You'd go looking for your stuff back. When you mess up your free education you're robbing yourself, and not even blinking about it. Even those kids on the street corner selling dope have to add and subtract, multiply and divide. The ones who can't are sort of slaves to ones who can.'When you say, 'No, I'm not gonna do well in school,' you're giving away money for the rest of your life. When you say, 'No, I'm not going to college' you're giving away money for the rest of your life. When you're a baby raising a baby, you're giving away money for the rest of your life. When you get caught with dope or become and addict like (fill in a real person's name here) you're giving away freedom for the rest of your life.' 'You're robbing yourself, and you're not even smart enough to be mad about it."Then, go to the bars, the dope houses, the churches and tell everyone, "You can have a house for $1." because that's what the LRA sells 'em for. Home ownership is where the poor community falls down for generations. Look at 203k loans. Look at HUD's programs to invest in 'blighted' communities. There's money there and people can have work working on rehabbing houses. They can own their own homes.

Ebony
Ebony

I remember Mr. Clark from the1990's....he came to speak to us at the Juvenile Center.....he has been helping people for a long time.....

St. Louis is in trouble.....there is too much violence.....we need to stand UP!!!

Ben W
Ben W

It's awesome to read an uplifting story about St. Louis, and the work of these two men.

CityFred
CityFred

James Clark should run for Mayor.......He would get my vote!I hope the City gets behind this program....

Advent Gabriel Rall
Advent Gabriel Rall

We have ah modern Martin Luther King among us..let us not wait until this hits ah higher stage to support and help this movement grow and catch on fire in every hood in America..the writer of this RFT article Albert Samaha, did ah great job of describing the fire in this Vision of "Put down the Pistol"... also big shout out to the photo shooter Ms. Silverberg...and the BFL family peace Fam,cuz,shorty-mane

NoBS
NoBS

So James Clark claims he wants to clean up St.Louis neighborhoods? Why did he and his wife then abandon a home and leave it to foreclosure, not only ensuring its vacancy for months but also driving down property values due to the foreclosure. He could have at least attempted to sell the property instead of just becoming another deadbeat because it was more convenient for him. This is a role model and a neighborhood improver? Gimme a break.

Donte
Donte

yeah u sound like ah little grown as Dude

guest
guest

talk about missing the bigger picture

anton
anton

Nobody is perfect. Forelosing on a home does not make James Clark a deadbeat. He is still considered a great guy doing a good cause.Celebrities and athletes have foreclosed on their homes, too.To name a few, but popular ones: Michael Jackson on his Neverland was auctioned.Latrell Spreewell, Jose Canseco, Micahel Vick, as well.Good job, James Clark and Norman White!

Larryjohnson2
Larryjohnson2

NoBs, I agree that leaving a house was a bad thing to do. But, the man's car was shot up....his home was broken into, burgular alarm wire cut. His wife said, to him, "I do not feel safe". For me, I would have done the same thing......also...the house sold, and he is still active in that neighborhood.....

The young men that he works with pledged to stand guard at his home, morning, noon, and night.....he told them that would not last long. He appreciated their love and pledged support, but he moved for his family....yet, he continues to serve the neighborhood

 
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